Gladwell, Malcolm. What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures.

NY: Little, Brown, 2009.

Writing an essay is quite a different skill from creating a novel or a book-length nonfiction monograph, and Gladwell is a master of it. He’s been writing for The New Yorker since 1996 and this volume, his fourth, brings together some of his best work published there during the past fifteen years.

In fact, I read most of the earlier pieces when they first appeared but all of them are worth re-reading. (The first one, an astute study of Ron Popeil, the pitchman par excellence, won a National Magazine Award.) Gladwell’s particular talent, I think, is to identify something which everyone assumes is true — either because it seems reasonable at first glance, or because no one has ever thought to question it, or because politics or society needs it to be that way — and then to say, “But wait a minute! Look at this! It’s really not like that at all!” And then you get your eyes opened whether you like it or not, which I expect is an uncomfortable process for certain readers with a vested interest in the topic under discussion. And his choice of subjects is highly varied: Why are there dozens of types of mustard on the market but really only one type of ketchup? What are the essential differences between investment strategies — and are any of them actually correct? How does the history of the marketing of hair coloring in the United States during the 20th century encapsulate the history of women’s rights? And, perhaps most appalling, how did the inventor of the birth control pill, a believing Roman Catholic, unintentionally sabotage its acceptance by the Church by a misunderstanding of the historical process of menstruation? Gladwell also takes us through an enlightening discussion in the title essay of just what it is that dogs perceive about people and why a misbehaving dog acts as it does. The collapse of Enron, one of the most important cautionary tales of our generation, comes in for a couple of separate investigations, and the con game the FBI has been pulling for years with its supposed expertise in profiling serial killers gets a thorough raking over the coals, too. The American intelligence community is also the subject of more than one essay here. And the author’s careful explanation, with full details, of exactly why it would be easier and far cheaper to solve the homeless problem in America than to attempt to manage it, should make any ideologically conservative politician extremely uncomfortable. And so should his revelation of how perhaps we could vastly improve the quality of public school teaching in this country. Occasionally, Gladwell’s investigations become more personal, as when charges of plagiarism against a talented playwright turn out to involve some of his own earlier journalistic writing. All the other pieces in this volume are equally fascinating and should make the reader pay closer — and more skeptical — attention to events in the public sphere. And the prose with which the author accomplishes this feat is so smooth, so reasonable, and so convincing, it slides right under your skin. I hope Malcolm keeps on with his crusade to enlighten his readers for a long time yet.

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